Why are we called Mormons?

The nickname “Mormons” stems from our unique book of scripture, The Book of Mormon.  Initially, it was a derogatory term used by the critics (haters, killers, mobs) to refer to the members of the Church.  Eventually, members of the church seemed to own the name, even took pride in being a peculiar Mormon.

A well-known anecdote from the life of Joseph F. Smith (nephew of the founder, Joseph Smith) provides a look at both sides of this label.

After serving a four-year mission in the Hawaiian Islands, from 1854 to 1857, young Joseph F. Smith began his long journey home to Utah. He boated across the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco, then slowly began his journey by foot with a small company of Latter-day Saints.

One day when the company had stopped to camp and rest, a group of troublemakers came storming through. Most of the men ran and hid, but Joseph decided he had nothing to be afraid of, so he continued the task of piling firewood in the camp. As he did so, one of the men approached him with a pistol, declaring that it was his duty to exterminate every Mormon he came in contact with. As he pointed his pistol at Joseph, he demanded, “Are you a Mormon?”

Without fear or hesitation, Joseph answered, “Yes siree; dyed in the wool; true blue, through and through.”

The man was so startled by the courage of young Joseph F. Smith that he dropped his pistol and said, “Well, you are the [expletive deleted] pleasantest man I ever met! Shake, young fellow, I am glad to see a man that stands up for his convictions.” The man rode off, with the others following behind (Joseph Fielding Smith, Life of Joseph F. Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938, 189).

Since the “Mormons” settled in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, we have used, and even embraced, the name “Mormons”.   We have also embraced the acronym LDS (Latter-day Saints) as a shortened version of the official name of the church.  Both of these are technically inaccurate.

The actual name of the church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  That was the name that Jesus Christ revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1830, which he set about to organize the church. It’s long, and maybe a little bit of a mouthful, but when you break it down, it is very instructive–

  • The Church of Jesus Christ.  This is His church.  He restored it, He leads it.  It’s the same church with the same authority and doctrines and ordinances that He first founded in 30 AD.
  • Of Latter-Day this iteration is in the latter-days.  Not the former-days. Not the ancient days.  It’s the same church, just in a different time period.  The Bible is full of references to the “last days”.  This is the Church that Isaiah prophesied would be on the tops of the mountains in the last days.
  • Saints The members of the church are referred to as Saints.  Not because we are flawless, infallible or perfect.  The early apostles wrote letters in the New Testament and often addressed them to the “Saints”.  It’s the title for people who believe and belong to Christ’s church.  All other definitions of the word have been imposed on it since the time of the apostles, but they inflate the credentials of what it means to be a Saint.  A Saint is a follower of Christ, a member of His church.

So take it all together again: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  We refer to ourselves as Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  

In fact, (and I can’t believe I didn’t see more news about this) in October 2018, just two years ago, our current Prophet Russell M. Nelson announced that we will no longer refer to ourselves as “Mormons” or “LDS” because both of those nicknames leave out the most essential part of our church’s identity–Jesus Christ.  We are members of the Church of Jesus Christ.  The church has diligently renamed websites, organizations, even colleges that use either of the two nicknames.  Instead of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, for example, we now have the Tabernacle Choir on Temple Square.  LDS Business College has just been changed to Ensign College.  LDS.org is now ChurchofJesusChrist.org. (This website stays the same because if you only know of us as Mormons, you’ll Google that–and we are here for curious readers).

We wouldn’t want anyone to be confused about who we are or what we believe if we self-identify as anything but followers of Jesus Christ.  So even though “Mormons” is shorter, please be patient as we introduce ourselves as Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.